Spartans complete 10-win turnaround in Holiday Bowl victory

SAN DIEGO — No. 16 Michigan State tied their own postseason record in a Holiday Bowl blowout of No. 18 Washington State on Thursday night, earning Mark Dantonio’s 100th win as head coach of the Spartans. The 42-17 win also marked the 10th win of a 2017 season for a Michigan State team that has reached double-digit wins for the sixth time under Dantonio.

The Spartans’ 21-point second quarter tied the 2015 Cotton Bowl fourth quarter for most points scored in a quarter, and three successive touchdowns opened up a 21-3 halftime lead the Spartans would not relinquish.

The major talking point from this game was the injury to Luke Falk that kept him out of a potential final game for the Cougars. Falk’s injury combined with the suspensions of two of WSU’s top receivers hampered a high-octane Cougar offense, and while backup Tyler Hilinski had a solid game in Falk’s absence, Michigan State’s defense was able to hold Washington State’s remaining receivers in check.

Following a first-quarter field goal from Washington State, a small lead after the first quarter for the Cougars seemed to suggest a close game. Brian Lewerke was 1-for-5 passing after the opening 15 minutes, but he righted the ship in the second quarter. His 10-for-11 performance in the second quarter featured a 15-yard touchdown to Cody White and a 49-yard score to Felton Davis III. A three-yard LJ Scott rushing touchdown with 29 seconds remaining in the first half made it 21 points for the quarter, and compounded the misery for Mike Leach’s Cougars, who fell to 9-4 on the season.

Lewerke and Scott were able to find yards on the ground against the Wazzu defense, as the pair combined for 183 yards and two Scott touchdowns. The final total for Michigan State on the ground was 227 yards, but it was long passing plays from Lewerke that helped propel the Spartan offense. Lewerke finished with 213 yards on 13-of-21 pass attempts, and shook off a poor start to finish an effective first campaign as MSU’s starting quarterback.

Felton Davis and Cody White were Lewerke’s favorite targets on the night, and Davis eclipsed the 100-yard mark again against Wazzu, securing 118 yards on just four catches. On his touchdown catch, a mix-up in the WSU secondary left him all alone in the middle of the field.

“Throughout the whole play I’m running the whole post and I see the corner and the safety both running towards Cody,” Davis said postgame. “I looked and I realized he didn’t throw the ball yet and the first thing that went to my head was just don’t drop it.”

Michigan State used a team effort on defense to beat a Cougar offense without their senior leader at quarterback. Chris Frey and company forced four three-and-outs in the first half, and forced two second-half turnovers to seal the game.

“I thought it was great — if you look at that football game we won because we won it physically,” Dantonio said. “That’s the reality of it. We shut down their run after catch by tackling very well.”

Postgame, Scott revealed news almost as exciting as the win itself — that he’d be returning to East Lansing for his senior year. The junior tailback finished with 898 yards on the season after Thursday’s contest, and expectations rise for a Spartan offense that may have a talent advantage in most of its games next year with No. 3 in the backfield.

“ I think he could be a tremendous tailback, a guy that we can hand the ball to 250 times and do great things,” Dantonio said postgame. “Much like when Shilique Calhoun and Connor Cook made the decision to come back. They followed with a ring, a Big Ten championship ring and I think those things become possible. We have an established tailback coming back and he’s a special player.”

The win moves Michigan State to the 10-win mark for 2017, and after a 3-9 year in 2016, Dantonio’s Spartans may be on the precipice of something special in a year’s time.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Michigan State had reached the 10-win mark five times under Mark Dantonio. We regret the mistake.